One of the UK’s most popular jazz saxophone players, Dave O’Higgins has teamed up with one of the scene’s hot young firebrands to give their unique twist on two of the genre’s legendary figures.
Beside working with Jamie Cullum, Kyle Eastwood and the the BBC Big Band among many more, Dave has been the band leader on 20 albums.
For his 21st, and the accompanying tour, he is joined by award-winning guitarist Rob Luft as they tackle the works John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.
Dave recalls how he first came across Rob when the guitarist was a member of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra: ‘I sometimes go in as a guest director, so I heard him early on before he’d even embarked on his professional career – he was already getting a good reputation for himself even then.
‘A couple of years later he gave me a call to do some casual blowing gigs with him, where they’d call whatever tunes on the spur of the moment and we had a really good time.’
With the pair getting on so well, they decided to see if they could take the music further.
‘We cooked up a bit of a plan: how about we try and get five or six gigs in a row and see what we can make of it? Next thing we knew we had a 40-date tour in place, so we thought we’d better take it a bit more seriously!’
Dave knew he was seeing something special in Rob’s playing as soon as they played together. ‘There was a very profound, mature musicality and also a lot of personality as well. In the perhaps very highly-structured boundaries of the Youth Jazz Orchestra, I didn’t get to fully appreciate it as when we did a casual, small, loose group session together at the Oval Tavern in Croydon, and when we did that, it was super-apparent he was a real force to be reckoned with.
‘It was just nice to play with someone very much of the new, young professional generation who had such an understanding of the music and knew so many tunes. And it was very very easy to click with and get on musically with him. It was obvious we needed to do some more stuff together.’
The two quickly decided on doing something with the oeuvres of Monk and ‘Trane – and tried to avoid the standards.
‘It became immediately apparent that we were both into Coltrane material and Thelonious Monk material.
‘Rob seemed to know an incredible amount of Monk tunes in particular. I’ve since found out that Monk wrote about 70-75 songs, and most jazz musicians probably have about 10-15 or so in their repertoire which are quite commonly played. We thought it would be great to explore some of that lesser played stuff.
‘On the record there’s a couple of things we’ve done that really don’t get played at all, but were a lot of fun to do and we’ve really been able to put our own stamp on.
‘We recorded so much material, we’ve probably got enough for two albums! Some of it might come out as bonus tracks at some stage.’
Did they find it easier to put their own mark on the lesser known material?
‘We’ve done a few cheeky things. For a start, Rob plays guitar, I play tenor, and obviously Thelonious Monk was a piano player. There’s a Hammond player and a drummer in our group, so the sonority means that no-one in the band can actually do an impression of Monk, which is what you’re inevitably drawn to if you’re a piano player and you’re interpreting Monk, because it’s so stylised. So with the line-up we’ve kind of forced ourselves into doing something different with it.’
‘And Rob has a very broad palate of sounds – one of his influences is (jazz guitarist) Bill Frisell, who’s always been known for some quite radical guitarscaping, and adventurous sonic platforms. Rob has two sides to his playing, one is the traditional acoustic jazz guitarist, and the other that will become immediately apparent as soon as you start listening to the album is that he has this broad palate of soundscapes and pedals and effects.
‘The stuff with the band was very much recorded live in the room where we performed, we’ve utilised the interesting sonic combination of the organ and guitar in a broader sense than in the traditional jazz combo. It’s definitely got a unique sound that we’ve put our stamp on.’
And how about the Contrane side of the equation?
‘When I started playing saxophone there were two players I was drawn to, soundwise, that I always aspired to, to try and capture a bit of the essence of what they were about, one was Dexter Gordon the other was John Coltrane. And also in very specific eras of their careers, when I feel they had their sounds at their strongest, for me that’s late ’50s John Coltrane and a kind of early to mid-’60s Dexter Gordon.
‘I’ve taken that and put many of my own influences through it to bring it more up to date, like I’ve been into Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, so there’s a lot of different influences coming through from my side too.’
The album, O’Higgins and Luft Play Monk and Trane is out on October 6 on Ubuntu Music.
DAVE O’HIGGINS & ROB LUFT
Chichester Jazz Club
Friday, September 6